Building A Butterfly Garden

Brightly colored butterflies can be a welcome addition to your wildlife garden both for their beauty and their usefulness in pollinating flowers. Attracting butterflies involves incorporating plants and elements that will serve the needs of all life stages of the butterfly. They will need places to lay eggs, food plants for their caterpillars, and places to form chrysalides and nectar sources for adults.

Here are ten tips to get you started toward building and developing a butterfly garden as a part of your backyard habitat.

Plant native flowering plants: Because many butterflies and native flowering plants have co-evolved over time and depend on each other for survival and reproduction, it is particularly important to plant native flowering plants local to your geographic area. Native plants provide butterflies with the nectar or foliage they need as adults and caterpillars.

Plant type and color is important: Butterflies are quite good at discriminating colors, which means that they are often to red, yellow, orange, pink and purple blossoms. Flowers that are flat-topped or clustered are great for larger butterflies that need more space to land and stay on the flower comfortably. Flowers with short tubes make it easier for smaller butterflies to feed. Having a variety of flower types and colors will enhance your chances of attracting a variety of butterflies. Butterflies are also nearsighted. Once they get within 10-12 feet of an object, they can see it quite well, but at a distance most things appear blurred. To attract the most butterflies, you should plant your nectar plants in masses. Large areas of the same color will be easier for the butterflies to see from a distance, and will encourage them to come in for a closer look.

Plant good nectar sources in the sun: Your key butterfly nectar source plants should receive full sun from mid-morning to mid-afternoon. Like all insects, butterflies are ectotherms, meaning they can't regulate their body temperatures internally. Instead, they rely on the sun's energy to warm their bodies so they can function. This is especially important on cooler days, because butterflies cannot fly when the temperatures dip below about 55° Fahrenheit. When you are planning your butterfly habitat, think about providing good basking spots in the sunniest areas of your yard. If sun is limited in your landscape, try adding butterfly nectar sources to the vegetable garden.

Plant for continuous bloom: The key to attracting butterflies is nectar, and lots of it. Try to plant so that when one plant stops blooming, another begins. Butterflies that overwinter as adults need nectar sources early in the season, and fall migrants, like monarchs, need plenty of nectar to fuel their long journeys south.

Say no to insecticides: Insecticides such as malathion, Sevin, and diazinon are marketed to kill insects. Do not use these materials in or near the butterfly garden or really anywhere on your property. Even "benign" insecticides, such as Bacillus thuringiensis, are lethal to butterfly-caterpillars. If you're trying to support insect life in your backyard, you don't want to use chemicals or other substances that kill them. Caterpillars need foliage to feed on, so you will have to learn to share.

Feed butterfly caterpillars: If you don't "grow" caterpillars, there will be no adults. Bringing caterpillar foods into your garden can greatly increase your chances of attracting unusual and uncommon butterflies, while giving you yet another reason to plant an increasing variety of native plants. Many caterpillars feed on trees and shrubs, rather than herbaceous plants, so include some woody plants in your habitat. In many cases, caterpillars of a species feed on only a very limited variety of plants. Most butterfly caterpillars never cause the leaf damage we associate with some moth caterpillars.

Provide a place for butterflies to rest: Butterflies need sun for orientation and to warm their wings for flight. Place flat stones in your garden to provide space for butterflies to rest and bask in the sun. If your backyard is subject to breezy conditions, think about how you can provide the butterflies with protection from the wind. Try to plant your nectar and host plants where the house, a fence, or a line of trees will buffer the wind. You could also provide a windbreak by planting taller shrubs or trees to block the prevailing winds from your butterfly garden.

Give them a place for puddling: Butterflies often congregate on wet sand and mud to partake in "puddling," drinking water and extracting minerals from damp puddles. Place coarse sand in a shallow pan and then insert the pan in the soil of your habitat. Make sure to keep the sand moist with your garden hose each day. Butterflies cannot drink from birdbaths or fountains. Instead, they get their water by taking up moisture from mud puddles. Butterflies also get important minerals by drinking their water from puddles. A complete butterfly habitat will include one or more puddling sites.

Keep bird feeders and birdbaths away from your butterfly garden: While creating a backyard habitat for both birds and bugs is a great thing to do, you do need to think of the predator-prey relationships in your yard. Birds prey on insects. Consider placing any bird feeders and birdbaths in a separate area of your backyard, just so it is not quite as easy for the birds to find the buffet of caterpillars in your garden.

Provide cover for overwintering butterflies and caterpillars: We tend to think of butterflies as summer insects. Butterflies may overwinter in any of their four life stages, depending on the family or genus. A number of butterflies survive the cold in the adult stage, by simply tucking themselves under loose bark or hiding inside a tree cavity. An easy tip: Do not rake all your leaves. Leave some fall leaf litter in a part of your yard for hibernating caterpillars. Brush piles and stored firewood also makes excellent shelters.


Related: Attracting Hummingbirds

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04.24.13  12:00PM    KAREN B

Categories: backyard habitat,gardening

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